So far a majority of the traveling that I’ve done on weekends has been within Spain, with the exception of Paris. As my second out-of-the-country trip, Morocco welcomed me with its rich culture, architecture and cuisine. I traveled with two of my friends – Sarah and Brooke – through a traveling organization called We Love Spain.
Before I jump into the adventures I experienced and cultural wonders that amazed me, it’s important to give a little background on certain elements of Morocco. The official language is Arabic although many people speak both Arabic and French. Less than one hundred years ago, northern Morocco was Spanish territory and southern Morocco was French territory. As my tour guide explained, written Arabic is the same among all countries that have Arabic as the common language, but with spoken language there are different dialects that make each country unique. Therefore people from Morocco would not be able to communicate with people from Saudi Arabia if they both spoke their local dialects; in that instance they would both speak the common Arabic language. Because there are so many travelers from Spain, people working in the tourist sector – a man selling leather goods on the side of the street, a waiter in a restaurant, a hotel receptionist – speak Spanish as well, or at least enough to get by. While in Morocco, I learned a couple of Arabic phrases. سلام or ”Salam” means “hello”; شكرا or “shukran” means “thank you”; and وخّا or ”waha” means “okay.”
A huge part of the Moroccan culture and history is engrained in the religion. About 98 percent of the population is Muslim and about two percent Jewish. The Islamic religion is based on The Five Pillars of Islam, the belief that “there is no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet,” praying five times per day and fasting during Ramadan. Many women wear headdresses although it is not a requirement of the religion. Although Muslim is the dominant religion, the Moroccans are very tolerant of all religions.
After our ferry ride from Algeciras in the south of Spain to Ceuta in the north of Morocco, I was thrilled to be in Morocco. Little did I know that we weren’t actually in Morocco yet. Ceuta is Spanish territory but within an hour we would be across the border. Our tour guide that we met in Ceuta took our passports in a plastic bag and went to get them stamped and approved for crossing through. As we waited in the line of cars, people strolled alongside the bus to cross the border by foot. Many Moroccans travel across the border from Morocco to Ceuta 12 times per day because merchandise in Ceuta is tax-free and to avoid declaring their purchases, they must bring over small quantities at a time.
The next day we explored the city of Tetuan. During the late 15th century Tetuan was a Moorish settlement for exiles after the Christian Reconquest. Upon arriving we visited the modern city which is much like other urban cities. The real delight was in store when we entered the old city, also called the Medina. The Medina is a maze, a maze that if you enter by yourself never having been there you will get lost. Luckily we had our tour guide in addition to another guide, who also served as a security guard, to keep all 40 of us together. In the Moroccan culture sometimes women get sold for camels; that’s why I say he was part security guard as well.
Stands filled with fresh fruit, nuts, raw fish, pastries, shoes, clothing and so much more lined the streets that we wandered down. The succulent strawberries and wholesome walnuts still in their shells called out to me. Being sensitive to smells and appearances of raw fish and meat, I didn’t quite enjoy passing whole fish with their eyes still in that gave off an aroma that seemed to travel for miles or the chickens hanging by their feet with their necks slashed open. The cruelty of treating animals this way turns my stomach inside out, even though I know that when I stick that piece of grilled chicken in my mouth that is the exact thing I’m eating.
As I wandered the streets, my attention was focused on absorbing all these rich sights, smells and flavors but also observing the interactions between the vendors and local Moroccans. Since Morocco is famous for its oils and teas, we stopped at a herb shop for a presentation about the speciality uses of Moroccan oil for hair, anti-stress and headache oil, lemon balm, spices for cooking, musk perfume and a variety of teas. With each oil and balm we were able to try a little bit and see the differences between their scents. Another presentation at a carpet market revealed the many intricate designs of carpets that the Moroccans make. It’s amazing that all of them are made by hand with so much detail and precision. The men at the market tried to sell the rugs to us but only a few ended up buying them because the prices were outrageously high. Part of the shopping culture in Morocco is bargaining. Almost never are the shop vendors going to expect you to pay the price that they tell you something is without bargaining.
For lunch we were treated to a four-course meal. Light vegetable soup warmed us up after wandering through the chilly streets. A refreshing cold salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, steamed carrots, potatoes and rice in a light lemony sauce provided us with nutrients. Following the starters, couscous with vegetables and meat was brought to our table in a dish with a cone top, which once removed revealed a huge steaming platter of the classic Moroccan food. For dessert we had cookies with sesame seeds on top, which were more like biscuits that cookies since they lacked a sweet factor. To fill that dearth of sweetness, we drank Moroccan whiskey, which is green tea with mint and tons of sugar. It is literally an addiction and the perfect way to end a meal.
Leaving the Medina, we walked the same streets that we strolled to get deep into the maze, although I had no idea at the time. Not until we exited the Medina did I remember that the modern city existed. The Medina is its own world, its own city within a city. Every city has an animal that is found wandering stray on the roads, whether it’s chickens, cats or dogs. In the Medina every couple seconds I passed a cat on the street.
After two hours in the bus, we arrived at the Grotte D´Hercules, or the Caves of Hercules. A local man led us through the caves to a beautiful lookout point to the ocean. When a picture is taken at the lookout spot and then flipped backwards, the hole between the rocks where the ocean is forms the shape of Africa. Our guide showed us rocks in the caves that represented different cities and their relation to each other. On one side was the Atlantic Ocean and on the other was the Mediterranean Sea, marked by wave-like indentations into the rock. Between them was Spain and Tangier. The creativity of our guide or whoever came up with this analogy amazed me. Similar to finding formations in stalactites and stalagmites in caves, mapping out Africa and Spain with the rocks gives them greater importance as well as a vivid picture of the geographical location. Then we took a short stop at the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea.
What we had all been waiting for had finally come: riding a camel. We looked forward to it for different reasons – Brooke because it’s her school’s mascot, others because they just wanted a picture and to be able to say they did it, and I because it’s something that I may never have the opportunity to do again. Before mounting the camel, I was a little nervous I would be thrown off of it because they are such big animals and I had no idea if they were trained properly to give rides. The camels start in a sitting position when you get on them and then stand up when commanded by the men in charge of them. The most frightening part was when the camel stood up at the beginning and sat back down at the end. Because they are so tall, they have to go down in progressive steps and most of the time it’s not a very smooth or comfortable process. During the short ride, it felt much like riding a horse. My camel was being directed by a young boy about 10 years old while the ones in front of me were tied together in a line. Ride a camel in Africa – check!
Hidden among the Rif Mountains, Chefchaouen awaited us Sunday. Chefchaouen is a blue town, named for its periwinkle blue buildings. Against the backdrop of the mountains, the contrasting color of the town is absolutely stunning. We met a local man who told us his name was Habbibi, meaning “my love” in Arabic. He guided us through the small mountainous town, showing us the fountain from which to get drinking water, the bathhouse that women visit in the morning and men in the afternoon, a local tapestry workshop and finally arriving at the main market. After doing the typical tourist shopping I had three and a half Durham left, equating to about 30 centavos or 50 cents. I didn’t want to keep it so when Sarah bought some bread from a vendor on the street who was also selling candied nuts, I asked him how much I could buy with my three and a half Durham. He asked me what I wanted and I told him whatever, everything! Throwing myself completely into the culture and buying something that the locals were lining up to buy even though I had no idea what it was made me feel like I delved deeper into the culture. Sometimes you just have to step outside your normal boundary and try something new, even if you have no idea what it will hold in store for you.
After another delicious Moroccan meal of salad, moist wheat bread, beef with vegetables and a fruit salad, we were back in the bus for the end to our culturally enriching visit to Morocco. Shukran Morocco, perhaps we will meet again in the future.